Children & Cotton Learning Zone for Social Studies & Citizenship
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  Annie says ...





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  My family came from the Highlands. Granny can speak Gaelic. She tells us stories about life there. It was very different!
Annie says ...











The Cotton Industry

During the 1700s the two main industries in Scotland were farming and linen manufacturing. Many people lived in the countryside, growing crops and looking after animals. They spun woollen yarn on spinning wheels, and wove cloth on handlooms in their cottages. Other people worked in the linen industry. Many of them worked in their own homes too. At this time, the two main materials for making clothes were wool from sheep and linen from the flax plant.

Around 1775, bales of cotton appeared in Britain for the first time. This new item became more popular than linen for making material and clothing. Cotton is also a plant like flax, but the fibres from a cotton plant could be turned into thread more quickly and cheaply than linen with the invention of new spinning machines.

By the 1800s, Scotland was fast becoming a hive of new industry. Towns and cities grew very quickly as people moved from the countryside to do different types of work in the new factories there. 

Clever inventors and engineers designed new and efficient machines which could work faster than humans. New forms of power were discovered like steam. New machines helped to provide new and different ways to travel, such as by canal, rail or
road. New tools were created to make farming and working the land easier. Over time technology came into the home to make chores less time consuming!

Cotton became big business in Britain because it was cheap to buy and there was plenty of this raw material being imported (brought from abroad). It soon took over flax and wool as the main textile industry. This industry was responsible for the creation of many new towns around Britain. The cotton industry created great riches for the mill owners and employed thousands of people in the mills to spin thread or weave material.

During the Industrial Revolution, new machines were invented that could spin thread much faster than women working with a traditional old-fashioned spinning wheel in their own homes. One of these was called the Spinning Jenny invented by James Hargreaves in 1764. Then came the Water Frame invented by Richard Arkwright in 1769 and in 1779, Samuel Crompton invented the Spinning Mule, which combined the best features of the others, and the Mule could produce a finer, stronger thread than ever before. 

These machines were amazing because they could spin hundreds of threads at once, making production much quicker!As Annie says, they were amazing,but they needed mechanical power, and were much too large for people to have in their homes. Very large buildings called mills were built to house them. 


The very first mills were built close to a river, because they needed a good supply of water to power them. Water-wheels were designed to drive the mill machines. To encourage workers to work at a mill, some mill-owners built houses for them. In this way new villages and towns developed. Many became known as cotton towns because they owed their existence to cotton. One of these was the mill village of New Lanark, built in 1784 to spin cotton into thread. 

A little later, steam engines were invented so mills could be powered by steam. Coal was needed to power these engines, but it meant that mills could be built anywhere, particularly in growing towns and cities. This was better for access to trade routes to transport materials and export finished products.


The cotton industry developed in 3 main parts of Britain during the Industrial Revolution:

  • North West England and Lancashire - around Manchester
  • The Midlands - around Nottingham 
  • West Central Scotland & The Clyde Valley - From New Lanark to Paisley 

to see the places where cotton mills existed and cotton towns developed around Britain. Was there a local cotton mill near where you live? Why don't you try to find out?

The Industrial Revolution took hold in the city of Glasgow at the beginning of the 1800s. Industries producing cotton and textiles, chemicals, glass, paper and soap grew very quickly. Many Highlanders and Irish immigrants moved to the city and formed a large part of the workforce.

Cotton mills employed almost a third of Glasgow's workforce, although the city was to become most famous in time, for its heavy industries like shipbuilding. The deepening of the River Clyde and the Forth Clyde Canal helped to make the city one of the richest and finest in Europe in Victorian times. But, like many other cities during the Industrial Revolution, the influx of people and new industry created terrible living and working conditions. Many people were very poor and lived in overcrowded slum areas with much crime and disease.

Terrible diseases hit the city population. The first cholera outbreak happenend in 1832 in Scotland and killed 10,000 people. There were also serious typhus epidemics in the city in 1837 and 1847. Over time though, improvements were made to the sewerage systems and housing by the city's Corporation (Public Health Body which many cities created) to try and improve conditions for its citizens.


Manchester was the textile manufacturing centre of the world during the Industrial Revolution. It become known as

In 1783 there was 1 mill in the growing city. This was owned by Richard Arkwright. Thirty years later (by 1813) there were 86 steam-powered cotton spinning mills there! Amazing changes in transport turned Manchester into a major transport interchange and helped to boost the growth of the cotton industry. The Bridgewater Canal was built, then in 1830 the Liverpool & Manchester Railway line arrived and of course, later came the famous Manchester Ship Canal.

In 100 years, between 1831 and 1931 the population of Scotland more than doubled from 2.3 million to 4.8 million people! This meant that there were more people to feed and there was a greater demand for goods. Not only was the population increasing, but where people lived was also changing.

Thousands of people moved from the countryside to the new industrial towns in search of better paid work in the new factories and mills. Some people found they were better off as millworkers than working the land.

Thousands of new workers were needed to work the machines in the mills, factories and foundries. Some mill owners built houses for them, while many workers were left to find somewhere to live in these new and strange urban places that were very different from country villages. People often found life very difficult in the fast growing towns and cities. They were dirty, noisy, busy places with terrible, overcrowded and unhealthy houses.

The businessmen who invested alot of money in building cotton mills wanted to make as much money as they could. The was a new way of organising workers in these large factories where they worked long hours to keep the machines going. Machines never got tired and they could produce ten times the amount that workers could do by hand. Processes in the mill were organised into departments and involved workers often doing repetitive tasks (the same job again and again). This was tiring and the conditions were often dangerous.

Young child workersAt this time children worked in many different and dangerous places such as farms, coal mines and even in chimneys. There were no laws to protect people at work until the Industrial Revolution was well under way.

Many factory workers were children. For many poor families, it was more important for a child to bring home a wage than to get an education, so it was considered quite normal. They worked long hours too and they were often treated badly by the mill supervisors or overseers. Sometimes children started work as young as four or five years of age. A young child wouldn't earn much, but even a few pence would be enough to buy food and help the family.

Many mill owners often took in orphans, where they lived at the mill and worked as apprentices for many years until their teens. Not all mill owners were unkind. You will discover that some, like Robert Owen at New Lanark, tried to improve workers' lives.

It took a long time for the government to decide that working children ought to be protected by laws, because many people did not see anything wrong with the idea of children earning their keep. People such as Lord Shaftesbury, Sir Robert Peel and Robert Owen worked hard to persuade the public that it was wrong for children to suffer health problems and to miss out on schooling due to work.

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